I have read all the Hutton books of the past 15 years and have been impressed by the way he exposes the values which underpin the operation of our economic and social systems - the use his 1995 book made of the stakeholder concept to distinguish Anglo-saxon from the European social model was well done - and further developed in his The World We're in
and also the The Writing on the Wall: China and the West in the 21st Century
. But I have always been left with a vague sense of unease. I think this book has helped me understand why.
Hutton always seems to give us the big picture - just look at the titles - but, at the end of the day, the focus is generally about fixing Britain. Despite, therefore, his attacks on neo-liberalism and defence of public services, his model remains a thoroughly economic one of the global battle of nation against nation. But the latest global crisis has made a growing number of people dissatisfied with this model (see below). For the moment, however, let's look at his arguments for a fairer society.
After the opening chapter you hit a rather forbidding 80 pages of philosophical material on Fairness. I got discouraged and left it lying on my bookshelves - until I decided to skip on to the middle of the book. I enjoyed the chapter on Innovation, Innovation, Innovation" - where the public status of universities is strongly defended. But it was page 271 before I reached the heart of the matter (the chapter with the rather odd title of Dismantling the Have-What-I-hold Society"). Frankly these 40 pages rarely rise above the level of an insipid undergraduate essay. Statistic is piled upon after statistic (often foreign) - and then a jump is made to a series of ad-hoc recommendations which just leave you gasping. One of them, for example, is to channel the proceeds of an inheritance tax to the disadvantaged" - finishing with the words - ëven the left suspect the poor are spendthrifts and one spendthrift will blight the way the whole system is regarded. But this need not be an issue if those who receive the proceeds had to agree to some form of reciprocal responsibility like committing to use the assets for some form of self-improvement or self-investment". Very convincing! It would make a great election slogan! Even more damning for a book about fairness which is replete with academic references is the failure to mention some recent well known British writing about equality. This book appeared in October 2010 - the introduction is dated 21 July 2010 and is able to comment on the emergence of the coalition government references to which also are scattered in the text of the book. And yet, amazingly, no mention whatsoever appears of Wilkinson and Pickles's The Spirit Level: Why Equality Is Better For Everyone
which appeared more than a year earlier. Nor is any reference made of David Dorling's prolific writings - although admittedly his great book on Injustice: Why Social Inequality Persists
came out too late for Hutton. Their arguments are far more detailed, powerful and comparative than those to be found in Hutton's boook.
Will Hutton is one of the few people who has the wide inter-disciplinary reading necessary for anyone who wants to say anything useful to us about how we might edge societies away from the abyss we all seem to be heading toward. But any convincing argument for change need to tackle four questions -
* Why do we need major change in our systems?
* Who or what is the culprit creating the problems which require to be dealt with?
* What programme might start a significant change process?
* What mechanisms (processes or institutions) do we need to implement such programmes?
Time was when most writing focussed on the first question - people needed convincing there was something wrong - hence the need for books like Turbo-Capitalism: Winners and Losers in the Global Economy
and Naomi Klein's No Logo
. Now people don't need convincing - they are looking for answers. Society seems to need culprits - and hence bankers have become the easy whipping boy but also, in more sophisticated analyses, the governments and politicians who relaxed the regulations to which the financial system used to be subject. But this just begs the question - how did governments and políticians come to do that? And writers such as David Harvey The Enigma of Capital: And the Crises of Capitalism
point us to the marxist theory of surplus the state we're in. It really is a pity that Hutton has nothing to say about such writers.
The first two questions require pretty demanding analytical skills - of an interdisciplinary sort which is fairly rare. Will Hutton is a rare journalist who keeps up not only with relevant social science but also philosophical literature and can therefore supply a clear, original and coherent answers to the first three of these questions. His penultimate chapter is a clear and magisterial overview of the economic and political reality faing the world's big ploayers. The book, however, does not really begin to answer the final question - the "how"of change - which is particularly pertinent for Hutton since the stakeholder analysis he brought with his 1995 The State We're In: (Revised Edition): Why Britain Is in Crisis and How to Overcome It
chimed with the times, did persuade a lot of people and seemed at one stage to have got the Prime Minister's ear and commitment. It did not happen, however, and Hutton surely owes us an explanation of why it did not happen. The Management of Change has developed in the past 2 decades into an intellectual discpline of its own - and Hutton might perhaps use some it in a future edition of the book to explore this question. He might find Change the World: How Ordinary People Can Achieve Extraordinary Results
particularly stimulating (I certainly did). The weakness of the approach also shows in the chapter which deals with the deficiencies of the political system and media. All the well-known criticisms are made - but only passing reference is made to the Power Report and campaign which we saw from 2006-2010. Here was a determined attempt by some of the great and good to expose and campaign for major change to the political system. Why it appears so have achieved so little is a fundamental question for anyone wanting to tackle the inequities and iniquities of the British system. And his conclusion gives thoughtful and positive reasons for viewing the arrival of a coalition government as opening a strong window of opportunity.
Perhaps I am being too critical. This is one of these rare books which actually makes you think - and to want to reread soon.